a peace lily stands bravely before a fiery-orange blurred backdrop. Defiant, really.

Pedagogical Violence and the Power of Language

 Published on May 3, 2018 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Maha Bali / مها بالي and Rebecca Halpern /  “Tuscan Lily” by Michael Taggart; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  0

The Purpose of Education

This article is part of a series that questions and attempts to clarify the overall goal of public education. Responses to this call investigate how the nature and intentions of higher ed have changed over time. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

My parents handed the lawyer a plastic binder with a paper insert, “Maggie Melo.” Moments before, my parents flipped through the file with approving nods. I wanted to hold the folder too, but instead my parents showed the contents from afar — they didn’t want me to touch the pages. A collection of my artwork, awards, and report cards (the good ones at least) sprinkled the sheets. Along with my binder were my older brothers’ and younger sister’s. The lawyer stacked the folders into the crease of his underarm: “Folks, we have a strong case. You’re going to leave the courtroom today as American citizens.” I could still see myself seated in the courtroom that day. I was wearing a navy-white floral dress, ivory-hued tights, with my hair tied back with a red ribbon. Not by choice, but by design — they wanted me to epitomize patriotism. After a few years living in the United States, my parents successfully petitioned for American citizenship.

My parents emigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s in search for a better life (their words, not mine). When I was born, my parents decided that they wanted to raise me “American.” Raising a Filipino child as an American meant many things to my parents: it dictated the shows I watched, the games I played, the food I ate, but most importantly the language I spoke. My parents exercised verbal hygiene around us kids. They would speak Tagalog to relatives and friends, but not to us directly. They were explicit in their rationale. My mother noted that she just “didn’t want us to get confused.” She wanted us to speak proper American English. While my narrative isn’t unique — there are many communities, nations, and peoples that continue to privilege this variety of English — I continue to have an estranged relationship towards Edited American English (EAE) as woman of color, as a student, and as a teacher in the academy.

In this piece, I meditate on the relationship between pedagogical violence and the teaching of Edited American English (what my Mom would call “proper English”). I am particularly inspired by Paulo Freire’s conceptualization of violence outlined in Pedagogy of the Oppressed where he draws connections between the oppressor and oppressed to the teacher (oppressor) and student (oppressed) relationship. Freire notes: “Whether urbane or harsh, cultural invasion is thus always an act of violence against the persons of the invaded culture, who lose their originality or face the threat of losing it.” I’m extending the idea of violence to include not only physical pain/and or suffering, but also its application to a person’s intellectual, emotional, and social well-being. Although the relationship between violence and teaching is a prominent theme in this piece, at its heart is an argument for centering students’ desired learning experiences in the classroom. I will be invoking John Dewey’s theory of experience to redirect the sole focus on violence (which, I contend, is inherent to the learning process to certain degrees and is particularly pronounced for students of color) to student learning experiences in the classroom.

I continue to think deeply about the way EAE has achieved a privileged status in the classroom space and beyond. I’m reminded of Catherine Prendergast’s work detailing the enduring pursuit for English proficiency within and outside of the United States. EAE is touted as a competence allowing for social mobility and personal well-being for anyone. Specifically, EAE is defined in the National Council for the Teaching of English (NCTE) statement entitled “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (SRTOL). NCTE describes EAE as an English variety that is typically seen in newspapers, magazines, and books; a particular flavor of English that has garnered much attention and prestige particularly within the academy. SRTOL continues to be a highly referenced document, and has obtained widespread reach to English teachers across the world. The treatise acknowledges the privileging of certain English varieties, such as EAE, and the detrimental downstream impacts favoring specific varieties can impose onto the languages and dialects students bring to the classroom. This call for awareness moves to ensure that students remain agents of their learning and of their composition predilections — even if it’s not EAE: The NCTE affirms “students’ rights to their own language — to the dialect that expresses their family and community identity, the dialect that expresses their unique identity.” However, I want to further problematize this privileging of EAE by acknowledging the limitations of the invoked “student community.”

The Myth of Standard English Users in the Classroom

The header of this section is a not-so-subtle nod to Paul Kei Matsuda’s article “The Myth of Linguistic Homogeneity” where he reveals a major discrepancy in the composition field. Matsuda asks: Why aren’t all writing instructors, assessment metrics, administration, and research concerned with language difference in the classroom? His questioning is provocative. I’m interested in disrupting this “containment” of the invoked classroom: “Behind any pedagogy is an image of prototypical students — the teacher’s imagined audience. This image embodies a set of assumptions about who the students are, where they come from, where they are going, what they already know, what they need to know, and how best to teach them.” He disrupts the roles of composition teachers by revealing a disconnect between their perception of their students and their literacies.

Many teachers, myself included, envision their classroom as monolingual. Matsuda undoes this perception by detailing the various dialects and languages that many, if not all, students bring to the classroom. Dialects can be defined as a variety of English language used by a group whose linguistic habit patterns both reify and are determined by shared regional, social, or cultural perspectives. This is particularly interesting when considering the way that students with varying literacies are taught or even imagined — how does one justify violence placed upon them, when the “them” is considerably always an unknown from the outset? This is what Matsuda calls the myth of linguistic homogeneity: “the tacit and widespread acceptance of the dominant image of composition students as native speakers of a privileged variety of English.” The perpetuation of the myth Matsuda mentions places students at a disadvantage because students are seen as a contained collective; infringing on a “teacher’s ability to recognize and address the presence of differences.” With that said, how can the teaching of EAE operate on a meaningful level for individual students — on the plane of experience?

Students’ Right to Their Own Language (Learning) Experiences

For several years, I held a Human Resources Training and Development position where I had the opportunity to facilitate international new-hire orientation to thousands of incoming employees. I remember one day meeting my training class of 200 new-hires from China. I learned that many of them decided to work at the company for varying reasons: to learn about the American culture, to meet new people, or (for a resounding majority) to learn or better their English for professional or academic reasons. Many new-hires, now friends, asked me for off-the-clock help with their English. It was interesting to note the varying “types” of Englishes they wanted to learn. While I conversed in proper EAE intonation and register with one person, another one emphasized their desire to learn slang, to speak casually and colloquially among friends. At the time I didn’t think much regarding the distinction between EAE and other English varieties. My main objective, instead, was to honor their chosen learning experience — after all, they each had their own unique set of goals and circumstances driving their desire to learn English. My friend learning EAE was a business major seeking to sharpen her English skills, while my other friend wanted to learn conversational English in order to help him mingle in bars and clubs.

I think about the potential violence I would have imparted onto my Chinese friends and realize that I don’t have a sure way to measure or predict it. That is, as their informal English instructor, there wasn’t a way to know whether I could be causing my friends harm on a social, political, or even economic level based on the variety of English they wanted to learn; I do know, however, that violence would likely have been imparted onto my friends if I were to teach them an English variety not of their choosing. That is, it would’ve been incredibly violent to dismiss their agency in deciding their own learning experiences. I took assurance knowing, however, that they were steadfast in their decision to learn a specific English variety. I quickly realized that my biases towards certain Englishes were subordinate to their needs and goals.

As I began to think more critically about the various Englishes I was teaching to my Chinese friends, I was reminded of a piece that I’ve read by Maha Bali where she draws connections between teaching and praxis: “For teaching to be praxis, we need to constantly reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it and what kinds of effects we are having on the world by the ways we teach and what we do.” Maha’s work prompted my thoughts on John Dewey’s theory of experience — specifically his advocacy for students’ agency in self-identifying which learning experiences are most meaningful for them. Maha and Dewey’s work together made me realize that teaching English to my Chinese colleagues was less about the variety of English I was teaching, and instead was more about how I could support my colleagues’ agency in choosing their English learning experience. Regarding experience, Dewey critiqued the progressive and traditional school systems with a theory of experience to account for a more meaningful approach towards giving students decision-making agency in their learning experiences. The limitations of traditional and progressive schools influenced Dewey to develop his theory of experience: “We live from birth to death in a world of persons and things which in large measure is what it is because of what has been done and transmitted from previous human activities.” There are two facets to his theory: continuity and interaction. Interaction refers to the experiences a person has from their past, present, and future. Continuity explains the interconnectedness of past, present, and future experiences and how they interact temporally to invite certain future experiences to emerge. These are two fundamental parts of an experience-driven pedagogy that values, first and foremost, the student and their decided learning experiences. Re-engaging conversations on the topic of teaching EAE, I agree with many of the conversations advocating for students to use their home dialects and languages at school in spite of EAE.

Students should have a right to their own language learning experiences. That is, although NCTE and Gonzalez et. al. argue for the preservation of home literacies and languages, I argue in favor of departing from home literacies and languages, too. This circles back to ideas of placing student learning at the center of the classroom. Instead of focusing solely on writing assignments advocating for home literacies, code meshing, or code mixing, I believe that the student should make the decision to not only engage one of the options, but to also have the option to depart completely from their home languages and literacies. The disengagement with a home literacy should not be seen as a kind of abandonment or shaming. It instead engages with critical facets of the family, especially immigrant families, on the basis for self-chosen assimilation, survival, and sometimes for needed invisibility. People leave home for a reason, and sometimes that means the leaving behind of their languages. It’s a deliberate act of survival.

Healing and Transparency in the Classroom

I want to offer the idea of transparency (and a couple of its applications) as a way to potentially help lessen pedagogical violence on the front end. In other words, I believe that transparency welcomes disruption of the academy’s black box — being forthright with ideas of assessment, the privileging of certain languages, and power dynamics in the classroom. Such topics of conversation cultivate liberatory teaching practices because students are centralized in the learning process. This idea is both inspired and builds from Maha Bali’s discussion on “Embracing Subjectivity” where she notes: “We need to stop thinking of external reality as more valuable than subjectivity, to stop treating subjectivity as a barrier to overcome.” Embracing subjectivity means the welcoming of critical discussions on biases and power. Demystifying the black box of learning provides students with the opportunity to engage metacognitively: They are more able to situate themselves within the context of the university — how their identity shifts, how it is aggravated, how it can change the way that people treat you, how it can be alienating. In other words, being able to name the violence (potential and past) gives students power. It gives them the ability to move through and against the oppressive structures the academy (and other spaces of course) is built upon.

Transparency in many ways is not a new pedagogical concept, however, I believe that it enriches the conversation relating to violence and EAE in a fashion that helps promote experience-based learning. Jesse Stommel succinctly discerns the differences among teaching, pedagogy, and critical pedagogy: “Teachers teach; pedagogues teach while also actively investigating teaching and learning. Critical pedagogy suggests a specific kind of anti-capitalist, liberatory praxis.” Within this piece’s larger context, a critical pedagogy approach welcomes various analyses and conversations on difficult topics: notions of social mobility and betterment from higher education and/or how persons have “bought into English” have gained an education, developed fluency in English, yet are still marginalized as second-rate citizens. It brings to the forefront the thresholds of material betterment that learning English touts. It speaks to one’s own articulation of gender, race, sex, and class as contingencies of upward social mobility.

Being forthright with students allows for personal restoration to occur within the classroom writ large. bell hooks draws from Thich Naht Hanh to conceptualize the teacher as healer for students — a direct acknowledgment of the relationship amongst teaching and violence. She notes his conceptualization of healing to include the unification of mind, body, and spirit. Elements of care in the classroom are outlined in Maha Bali’s piece where she discerns care on intimate and massive scales, highlighting the need to get to know students on an individual level, to be willing to offer some information of yourself (to challenge the mind-body fragmentation of student and teacher), and to promote holistic well being of student and teacher.

On a final note, I’m reminded of the importance of scheduling time for healing or, in other words, allotting time to make sense, synthesize, and make meaning of any learning experience. As a teacher and writer, I gravitate towards language to grapple with the feelings and thoughts emerging from learning. For example, when I was an undergraduate, I remember the uneasiness of writing a literacy narrative: a genre that asks students to recount their relationship with writing and reading throughout their lives. The assignment asked how I came to learn “academic English.” I was told to include details about my parents, their occupations, and how often they read to me. As an undergraduate woman of color, from a working class family, I felt compelled to perform a certain literacy narrative. I wanted to do well on the project, so I reluctantly opened up about my family. I talked about my parents’ emigration to the US in the 1980s. I talked about my mom switching her English on at Carl’s Jr. and switching it off at home. I talked about the way my Dad would ask me to talk to others in public, such as the store clerk, because he felt his “accent” made him look silly when he spoke. I wrote about the way our parents didn’t speak Tagalog around me and my siblings, and how they didn’t read to us so often (working multiple jobs and taking care of children can do that to anyone). Writing the narrative opened up a part of my upbringing that I hadn’t unpacked or given much thought to. The uneasiness of this retrospective analysis was exacerbated when I read and heard about others’ literacy narratives. Their well-to-do parents: lawyers, professors, doctors and the like. The in-home libraries and the countless hours of bedtime stories. This assignment, the mere literacy narrative, made evident the countless differences between my colleagues and myself. I wish my professor would’ve considered the power of language to surface personal challenges. Language isn’t neutral. Writing assignments, too, are ideologically framed. Beyond this text, I’ll continue to grapple with ideas of violence and the role I play as a teacher. I’m constantly reminded of the finicky and unpredictable nature of pedagogical violence. Violence doesn’t abide temporally. Although a learning experience may be void of violence during one moment, it can still possess the potential to cause suffering in the future. Pedagogical violence is enigmatic at best, yet continues to move persons away from familiar bonds, knowledges, know-how, and into, perhaps, states of alienation.

Add to the Conversation

Leave a Reply

Explore Related Articles from Hybrid Pedagogy

journal logo (two nested mathematical Unity symbols in light and medium blue) above the following text: “Hybrid Pedagogy: An open-access journal of learning, teaching, and technology”

Open to Chance?

Hybrid Pedagogy on Twitter

Support Our Work